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Cynthia Ozick’s Story Envy Or, Yiddish In America

2345 words - 9 pages

"Envy": Cynthiz Ozick Meets Melanie Klein

Cynthia Ozick’s story “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” shows the corrosive effects
of envy on the life of the lonely, aging Yiddish poet Edelshtein. Edelshtein is consumed
with envy of Ostrover, a famous Yiddish novelist known from English translations of his
stories. He feels that Ostrover has both cuckolded him and bested him in literary
success. Edelshtein believes he could become as famous as Ostover if he too had a
translator into English. Without the translator, he fears his poems will die along with
him and the dying Yiddish language. The story seems to illustrate the psychological
insights of Melanie Klein about the unconscious mechanisms behind envy: “I consider
that envy is an oral-sadistic and anal-sadistic expression of destructive impulses,
operative from the beginning of life. . .” (Klein, ix). So long as Edelshtein operates out
of envy, he will remain caught in a vicious cycle, in an infantile, self-destructive state,
thwarted in his attempts to love or to be creative. He will continue to feel persecuted by
Ostrover, which is really a form of internal persecution. As Klein says, “When this
occurs, the good object is felt to be lost, and with it inner security” ( 84).
“Envy,” which is included in Ozick’s 1969 collection, The Pagan Rabbi, is
reminiscent of Bellow’s Herzog (1965). Both are profound psychological anatomies,
detailed dissections of a single suffering character, a victim who is nevertheless in
many ways his own worst enemy. Both stories are delicately poised between the comic
and the tragic. Both protagonists are intellectuals who rail against the “Wasteland
outlook” and defend Jewish humanism. Herzog rejects “the commonplaces of the
Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of
pipsqeaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness” (Bellow 75). And Edelshtein writes,
“Mamaloshen doesn’t produce Wastelands. No alienation, no nihilism, no dadism”
(Ozick163). But aside from their insights and eloquence, both men are also cuckolds
and shlimazels, obsessed and half-crazy, consumed with jealousy or envy and the
desire for revenge, and both compose many mental letters they never send. What
Gersbach is for Herzog, Ostover is for Edelshtein. The difference is that Herzog is
twenty years younger than Edelshtein, has family and friends and more inner
resources, and thus is more capable of love and of recovery. Herzog ends with the
hero at peace, in the summertime in the country, putting his house in order, and
awaiting the visit of a woman who loves him. “Envy” ends with the hero in the winter in
New York City, alone and embittered, raging on the phone at an anti-Semite. Herzog
matures a bit in the course of the narrative, but Edelshtein, despite being much older
than Herzog, is prevented from growing up by the force of his all-consuming envy.
Edelshtein is in many ways sympathetic, a little guy struggling to survive, lost...

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